<Reading The Firefly Letters more than Reviewing>
“Like the firefly light, Engle’s poetry is a gossamer thread of subtle beauty weaving together three memorable characters who together find hope and courage. Another fine volume by a master of the novel in verse.”Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle
cover art by Ana Juan
Henry Holt & Company, 2010.
149 pages (hardback). ages 10 & up.
Fredrika says her father
gave her a hill
for her birthday.
The hill was stony,
but it overlooked
a green meadow.
Her older sister
had received a hill too,
but one with gardens, walkways,
and benches for visiting
Fredrika’s hill had nothing
but a view
Margarita Engle’s The Firefly Letters is inspired by “A suffragette’s journey to Cuba” in 1851. A historical fiction novel told in verse, Engle pulls from “Bremer’s Cuban letters, diaries, and sketches from her three-month visit in 1851” (146).
Fredrika Bremer of Sweden travels the world in search of Eden. Eden, to her mind, is a society where human beings treat each other as equals and act accordingly; among other things. Climate is considered and Cuba with its “gentle climate and Winter Sun” appeals to her. But for all of Cuba’s idyllic landscape, the slavery taints and a sense of helplessness drives Bremer away.
I am ready to leave Cuba,
but how can I go—how can I abandon
this sick girl who has worked so hard
to help me understand
this beautiful island
with its hideous ways? (192)
Fredrika stays longer than she would for Cecilia, having seen enough to know that Cuba is not the Eden for which she was looking. Indeed, once eyes are open to the seemingly irreparable state of relationship, Fredrika leaves the garden.
Cecilia is a young woman slave from Africa who acts as Translator for Fredrika. She longs for the home and life of freedom lost to her; traded by her father for a stolen cow (1). Cecilia, young and fully pregnant and having an ailment of the lungs. Cecilia who would love the husband who was chosen for her but for the fact that he was chosen for her (23).
Elena is the one character of the three main characters who is not derived from Bremer’s historical accounts, but she is no less realized, no less probable, no less fascinating. She is as curious and free-thinking as Fredrika and Cecilia. And like Cecilia, she has her own imposing dictations. Fredrika has impositions as well, for that matter—ever aware of political implications: “Even if I had thousands of gold dollars,/I could not give them to Cecilia/without offending my host, Elena’s father,/and that would cause problems/for the Swedish Consul–/an international incident/between our two nations” (67-8)”
A little younger than Cecilia who is “at least 15” (9), Elena (12) is anticipating a marriage at 14 and is working steadily to fill her hope chest. The hope she would fill the chest with takes on new meaning and aspect as the story progresses and the objects she sews/readies are repurposed. In a way, she is a character similar to Fredrika in her own youth. In the comparison, her future is projected—a liberator of the enslaved of Cuba, whether they are women or no.
Elena also facilitates a close for The Firefly Letters. Fredrika stays, but cannot possibly see Cecilia’s life through (unless Cecilia were to die). Elena provides another cause to linger, needing Fredrika to help her in a plan she comes to hatch.
If I can help her,
and if this plan works,
then I will finally
be able to leave Cuba
with new faith
in the future
of all women,
all girls… (125)
Once the aide is provided Fredrika can leave—and does. The reader can finish the story with a sense of an ending and a beginning.
The relationship of Elena to Fredrika and Cecilia is slower in coming to fruition; thus, closing in on the end of the story, Elena leaps and I wonder if the story falls with her. While transitions between narrators may take natural turns, the progression of story feels strange. With Elena introduced, can we leave her future uncertain? Were her interactions with Fredrika and Cecilia just a childhood rebellious romp? Would Cuba remain unchanged after Bremer’s visit? I suppose not. As much as Cecilia is changed, there is no hope of her status as Slave changing, and the freedom of her unborn child has only one probable hero. Elena is key to the Cecilia dilemma–Fredrika, as a foreigner, cannot interfere in such a way as Cuban Elena might. I question the elegance of the timing. Was there enough time in the 3-month stay to develop a believable character in Elena? The quickening pace not out of literary tensions, but authorial. Elena flickers between character and device; a spectre in the interstitial between Fredrika and Cecilia.
Elena envies Cecilia her usefulness; gifted with words and translation (4); the freedom to romp around in the mud or run in circles with Fredrika; to be boyish instead of a girl; “How disturbing it feels/to envy Cecilia,/a slave” (39). And it is disturbing. Juxtaposed with Cecilia, her riling against her restrictions could seem petulant.
Fortunately Engle and Fredrika rescue Elena’s character from otherwise sulking over her terrible fate as more than a few times married women sometimes enter an institution of slavery as well, and in similar ways. Elena has her own forays into the Market place, in the carriage’s niña bonita, the “pretty girl” seat where she is presented to wealthy suitors (118).
Isn’t life sorrowful enough
in places without slavery,
where so many men
treat the women
of their own families
like possessions of wood or stone,
without souls? (117)
We are introduced to the similitude of slavery and marriage early, and much more subtly. I love the elegance of it. After an excerpt from a letter to the Queen Dowager of Denmark from Fredrika Bremer, Cecilia begins the narrative where she tells us about her childhood and of her being traded into slavery by her own father. Her narration in Verse ends with:
Spanish sea captains and Arab merchants
are not the only men
who think of girls
as livestock. (2)
This segues into and introduces Elena, whom we come to know as a possession of her own father’s.
Elena and Cecilia did not need Fredrika Bremer to see that the way things are are oppressive, and wrong. Secrets are hardly secrets, as noted with the illegal slave trade boats (47). What Bremer does is instill a new way of thinking and a hopefulness that any action however harmless or even dangerous gifts freedom.
Without even trying to be a teacher,
Fredrika is teaching us,
showing us how to see things in new ways
instead of always thinking
the same old tired thoughts
that have been passed along by strangers
day after day, year after year
without any spirit of amazement
or wonder. (113)
This is to Beni’s concern: “will she leave my wife/with useful gifts…/or just fine ideas/and wild hopes?” (66). A good question.
Four narrators take turns unfolding story and characterization. What one may not observe about themselves, another does. They have their unique positions and insights. Together a greater picture of Cuba 1851 is drawn, both its exterior and interior.
Three of the narrators are anticipated, the fourth less so, but Cecilia’s husband Beni’s perspective becomes a narrative necessity—apparently; yet a choice I don’t fully understand. Is it the male perspective? A male both forced into slavery and marriage. His monologues are infrequent, though not until the end does it become truly awkward. Nonetheless his insights are of interest, another deepening layer.
The Firefly Letters could not be said to be deceptively simple. The form of the narrative alone requires an engaged reader. Engle’s work refuses to be numbered among the be one of those read-(somewhat quickly)-to-gain-the-check-on-the-list. Because of the Poetry, The Firefly Letters should be read aloud. [The word-count is hardly daunting.] Because of the Poetry, images, however accessible, are appropriately layered. Lines were considered and thus demand consideration. [Hardly a chore.]
Light is predominant in the imagery, as well as the sense of sight. “Cecilia,/a young African girl/with lovely dark eyes […] with her help/I will see how people live” (7-8). A dangerous moon, which functions as a veritable tree of the knowledge of good or evil, an object to fear and protect against. The sun: “Can it be/that they are afraid/of hideous truths/that will be revealed/by the lovely sun/as well as the dangerous/moon?” (71). The fireflies, a natural and magical source of light by which Fredrika could write (13). Light is linked with the ability to see in more than the physical sense, “At sunset, the same river looked purple,/and in the morning it was green./Light was the only thing/that had changed” (45). Fredrika was a light, and she showed how light could be changed.
There are the references of Eden and Paradise, of the beauty of nature and the abomination of that which is unnatural. The seen and the unseen; the hidden revealed by the other senses. “Even here in the lovely city of Matanzas,/with elegant shops and ladies in carriages/waving silk fans,/there is always the scent/of rotting tropical vegetation,/a smell that releases a bit of sorrow,/like the death of some small wild thing—/a bird, perhaps, or a frog” (7). Note the page number. For all of Frederika’s hopes for the “gentle” climes or wealth of Cuba, something is amiss (51).
What is natural is important, tied to the roots of some lost or forgotten place… Nature could guide us back ideologically, or remind us of how things are to be. Cecilia after “the tale of an old man who rescued his owner’s children” (108):
They tell me they do not believe
that people are either
black or white–
if that were so, then mixed-race children
would all be gray
instead of a myriad
lovely warm shades
of natural brown. (109)
I think on this when later Elena “no longer wears the pasty white makeup that causes so many Cuban ladies to look ghostly. Her natural skin color is the hue of wheat, the color of men and women from southern Spain, a land ruled by Moors for seven hundred years” (132). So many in The Firefly Letters seem to be so far from home.
Fredrika tells me that my eyes
are suddenly sparkling with hope.
She gives me a sketchbook
and a pencil of my own.
Suddenly, I feel like an artist
or a magician. (86)
Engle is an artist, a magician. I think she would see a “sparkling of hope” in a Readers eyes and have want to hand them a sketchbook and pencil and change the world in whatever way they can, having taken the first steps, my seeing. Fredrika Bremer wanted to share with the world Cuba, “I must think carefully/ about how to describe slavery/ in such a way/ that my true stories/ about Cuba/ will be believed” (54). Engle does the same, artfully and magically.
“How will they know/unless someone travels/and writes/about the tales/told by brave children/like Elena/and courageous mothers/like Cecilia?” (143). The words are Fredrika’s, and they are evidently Engle’s. Engle shares the fascinating historical figure of Fredrika Bremer, and even of her Translator Cecilia. She would say something more, urging the Reader to not remain only in 1851, but consider present-day implications. That Engle isn’t didactic in presentation makes The Firefly Letters quietly powerful for the younger reader…and the older.
The Firefly Letters ends on a note of hopefulness. And yet there is a tremulousness. The ease of a happy effortless ending without sacrifice is not promised. But in the giving of one’s self to a cause finds accomplishment…and a gift of freedom—however small. Each finds purpose, and finds she/he is able to choose.
As the story closes, this novel in verse, I was drawn to think about the rescuing of the fireflies.
Even though we can never help them all,
I feel my mind flying and glowing
along with the winged creatures
that we have rescued
as they soar away, free…. (56)
We find greater freedom in the freedom of each other. A beautiful idea…that we could unbind ourselves, one freed soul at a time.
While Margarita Engle is already an author on my radar, I made doubly sure to read The Firefly Letters as it was on my “concenter list“.